Theatre of the people

Vijay Prashad is a historian, author and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, an inter-movement research organisation based in Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, New Delhi and São Paulo. He is also the Chief Editor of LeftWord Books and a fellow at the Independent Media Institute. As a journalist, he writes for Frontline, the Hindu, and Turkey’s BirGün. He has been associated with Himal Southasian since its inception.

SAFDAR HASHMI (1954-1989)

There are still ways to produce art and social commentary without having to be routed through the media monopolised by Big Business.

On 1 January 1999, theatre activist Safdar Hashmi will have been dead ten years. Time flies when the struggles are intense and what time there is, is spent less on grieving than on continuing the battle for which Safdar gave his life.

Since Safdar's death, the Indian political scene has been wracked by two watershed events, the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the nuclear tests in 1998. When the 16th-century mosque was torn down in 1992, it shattered a withered domestic compact on mutual respect for peoples. And when the Indian government conducted its second batch of nuclear tests, it significantly transformed India's foreign policy position, notably in terms of its principled stand in favour of the peaceful co-existence of nations. Both events came at the hands of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the political party of the Hindu Right.

For a period of five days between 28 December 1998 and 1 January 1999, activists from across India and elsewhere will meet in Delhi in memory of Safdar Hashmi to defend the following six axioms which are at the core of the cultural politics of those such as Safdar:

  • The participatory nature of popular democracy.
  • The plurality of Indian traditions, all of which have legitimate and equal political claims, all of which originate from lived contemporary experiences, rather than from a mythical ancient mind.
  • Pacifism, peaceful coexistence and the solidarity of the Third World in the face of the new challenges of globalisation orchestrated by imperialist powers.
  • The legitimacy of dissent, indeed, its indispensability and value in a democratic system.
  • Secularism as an integral part of the politics of the Indian State; tolerance of diverse faiths as the foundation of civil society.
  • The nuclear weapon as an illeg-itimate instrument of coercion, which engenders a political doctrine that is deeply antithetical to every basic value of Indian democracy.

Media plutocracy

In 1948, Bertolt Brecht criticised the mode of drama which sought to transform human beings into "a cowed, credulous, hypnotised mass" who become not only incapable of social thought and action, but who also believed that life takes place on the proscenium stage and that their own existence is unimportant. Brecht said, "How much longer are our souls, leaving our 'mere' bodies under cover of the darkness, to plunge into those dreamlike figures up on the stage, there to take part in the crescendos and climaxes which 'normal' life denies us?"

The situation has become worse in 1998, as the Entertainment Industry attempts to persuade the masses to be passive receptacles of whatever is fed them by the various media. Of course, not everyone is taken in by the ideas proffered by the big media monopolies, but they find it very difficult to find information to challenge the opinions that come from this plutocracy (comprised of Paramount, NewsCorp, Time Warner-Disney-Turner, MGM and Matsushita, which control almost all media production and distribution and which attempt to dump their products outside the advanced industrial states and provide singular ways to interpret the world's news).

For a brief instant the Internet offered some hope for the freedom of information, but now that fabled territory is also under threat by the Information Giants whose websites have more visitors than any other and who have made it their business to tar independent sites as liable to perpetuate hoaxes (or be the refuge of the Conspiracy Theorist). One need only keep in mind the ongoing anti-Trust actions against Microsoft and of the merger of America On-Line with Netscape.

In terms of a sense of empowerment, the masses certainly seem massified, paralysed by the sentiment of incapacity and worthlessness. However, there are still any number of popular attempts to produce art and social commentary without having to be routed through the media monopolised by big business. Graffiti art, xerox magazines and pamphlets, street-corner rap and the street cassette industry, body art (with tattoos and piercings) among others, provide some indication of the wide variety of ways people try to exert their views despite the closed gates of the Entertainment Industry. Occasionally, these forms are also appropriated by the monopolies, and they quickly lose the edge and energy of their roots. The appropriate example here is the transformation of street corner rap into the kind of nihilistic rap of the big record labels.

Socialist theatre is one avenue to combat the Entertainment Industry not just with socialist realism (which was only one of its forms), but also by offering a challenge to the idea that art is an escape from reality (a notion best summarised in the cultural criticism of T.S. Eliot). In 1918, Vsevolod Meyerhold, the constructivist, broke with the conventions of bourgeois theatre when he produced Vladimir Mayakovsky's Mystery Bouffe on the streets of Moscow to celebrate the anniversary of the October Revolution. The play's prologue noted that conventional theatre isolates the action on a stage and disregards the audience. "We, too, will show you life that's very real," wrote Mayakovsky, "but life transformed by the theatre into a spectacle most extraordinary."

Meyerhold (1874-1940) was a unique product of the revolution. An opponent of social realism, Meyerhold believed that actors must keep their performances to a minimum so that the play might draw in the audience. He also used pantomime, acrobatics and other popular forms of play into the theatre to highlight the visual dimensions of the theatre so that the audience might actively provide meanings for events on the stage, rather than be fed all the meanings by the troupe on stage. He designed an interactive stage to move away from the tight frame of the proscenium arch and he eliminated the concept of the curtain, which he felt divided the audience from the players. Meyerhold's avant-garde stage design attempted to draw the audience into the play, a concept that he also developed on the streets

Meyerhold's theatre was not only available to the people, it also attempted to grasp and politicise everyday popular trials. Watching the play, the audience could be stimulated to consider familiar experiences which might, in turn, lead to discussion of things hitherto obscured. The theatre became the means towards the politicisation of everyday phenomena as well as a place to celebrate the extraordinary struggles of heroic folks.

These are the values of the tradi-tion of street theatre, which is less about drama on the street and more about the values of critical inquiry and struggle. Safdar Hashmi, India's most famous exponent of this art form, wrote that street theatre "is basically a militant political theatre of protest. Its function is to agitate the people and to mobilise them behind fighting organisations….Street theatre became inevitable when the workers began organising themselves into unions."

Bored bourgeoisie

To call any kind of play performed in the open air "street theatre" is to denigrate its important heritage of social protest. "The very term 'traditional street theatre' is an anachronism," noted Safdar. "If street theatre has any definite tradition in India, it is the anti-imperialist tradition of our people forged during the freedom movement. In other parts of the world it is the peoples' struggle for a just social and economic order."

Safdar saw the plays of Jan Natya Manch (Janam, or the People's Theatre Troupe, with which he was closely associated) as "the manifestation of protest against the bourgeois concept of theatre, against the bourgeois appropriation of the proscenium theatre". The bourgeois artist takes refuge on the stage and uses its power as well as the design of the auditorium to lecture to a set of disconnected individuals who all sit in awe of the raised platform. Of course, Safdar argued, "this concept of interaction between isolated individuals and a work of art is in itself a bourgeois need and an offspring of a system founded on the philosophy of individual enterprise".

The issue is not where the play is performed (and street theatre is only a mode of ensuring that art is available to the people), but the principal issue is the "definite and unresolvable contradiction between the bourgeois individualist view of art and the people's collectivist view of art". One young Janam actor, Brijesh Sharma, noted candidly that "lives haven't been changed by our plays, but I think we have been helpful in the struggle, in consolidating people behind fighting organisations, in making them think of a better system for the future. I believe that culture is a catalyst in the slow process of change in our values and attitudes." Art must not principally mesmerise, but it must enjoin the spectator to develop a critical consciousness about things familiar.

The point of street theatre reminds us about the crucial issue of audience. Must the people's culture be brought into the living rooms of a bored bourgeoisie for whom the folk themes are useful simply as a way to exoticise the masses rather than to render them human and filled with an emotion for social transformation? Or must it enthuse the working people to act against the structures that keep them fettered? If the latter, then street theatre cannot be inert productions for the voyeurism of the elite, but it must be part of dynamic social movements for transformation. "One must speak of a struggle for a new culture," wrote Antonio Gramsci as he sat in Mussolini's jail, "that is, for a new moral life that cannot but be intimately connected to a new intuition of life, until it becomes a new way of feeling and seeing."

The struggle shapes artists with a social "poetic aura", one that enables them to transform art itself. Street theatre develops popular culture not by denigrating those forms that might not be progressive, but by delving into the past in order to draw it into the future through a radical lens.

Tender comrade

Safdar Hashmi was the embodiment of those values which shaped his craft—that of cultural activist and street theatre artiste. He wrote books for children and criticism of the Indian stage, but he will be remembered best for his work with Janam, formed in 1973 as an outgrowth of the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). Janam (which means "rebirth" and works as an acronym for the troupe's name) came into its own with the performance of Machine to a trade union meeting of over 200,000 workers on 20 November 1978, and went from strength to strength with plays on the distress of small peasants (Gaon Se Shahar Tak), on clerical fascism (Hatyare & Apharan Bhaichare Ke), on unemployment (Teen Crore), on violence against women (Aurat) and on inflation (DTC ki Dhandhli).

Safdar's membership of the Com-munist Party of India (Marxist) enabled him to forge art as part of the struggle in the party. There was no question of the subsumption of art to the will of politics, since art was simply part of the political life of the masses. Art came from the struggles of the people rather than from the parlours of a detached bourgeoisie. All of Janam's plays reflect this

On 1 January 1989, Safdar and Janam were performing one of their plays, Halla Bol (Raise Hell!), to offer solidarity to industrial workers on strike as well as to the CPM election campaign in the hinterland of Delhi. The play was about the government's role in the repression of the workers' organs in their economic struggle. During the show, a crowd of Congress supporters arrived at the scene, armed with guns and bamboo poles. The confrontation that ensued led to the murder of Safdar—evidence of the shallowness of liberal democracy in which a terrified bourgeoisie enacts its fear through terror.

A tribute written eight years after his death by Safdar's mother ends with a prosaic call to remember the lives of people like Safdar: "Comrade, your name, your actions, your commitment will never be forgotten. Your courage brings strength to my arms today. Your love will envelop us, today and in the future. We will not give up hope. Though you no longer walk beside us, your laughter and your songs will rise again from our throats, and when we advance to new revolutionary goals, your example will be there before us, encouraging us to forge further ahead. Comrade, farewell." But, as Safdar's wife Moloyshree (a member of Janam) remarks, "Safdar's death was a trem-endous blow, but it was also a source of inspiration. For Janam he is no cult figure—a word with negative implications. He himself had no time for such concepts. He saw himself as the people's artiste whose creative energies were unleashed by the forces of society. He identified himself with those who fought for a better world. He is part of our strength and convictions for the future."

India (for Safdar Hashmi)

by Amitava Kumar

America, when will you send your eggs to India?

I'm sick of your insane demands.

– Allen Ginsberg, America

India I have given you all and now I'm a memory.
I'm a name for a playwright killed and a movement born on January 1, 1989.
I can't stand my own countrymen's minds.
India when will we end the daily war?
Go fuck yourself with your nuclear bomb.
India, I'm not Sanjay Gandhi I don't give a damn about making arutis.
I will write poems about tyrants spilling blood in the streets.
India when will you be a playground for your children?
When will you celebrate Holi with red flags?
When will you remind the world of the dead in Bhopal?
When will you be worthy of a single landless peasant in Bihar?
India why are the songs of Bhikhari Thakur about lean days?
India when will you stop sending your engineers to America?
I'm sick of the world's insane demands.
When can I appear on Doordarshan and shatter H.K.L. Bhagat'sdark glasses with my smile?
India after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your ministers are too much for me.
You made me want to be poor.
There must be some other way to settle this argument.
Gaddar is in a prison even at home it's sinister.
Are you being sinister or is this a practical joke of the Home Ministry?
I'm trying to come to the point.
I refuse to give up my obsession.
India stop pushing I know what I'm doing.
India the gulmohar is blooming.
I haven't read the newspaper for months, every day somebody isaccused of wild corruption.
India I feel sentimental about Telengana.
India I became a communist when I was a kid I'm not sorry.
I sing songs at town squares every chance I get.
I sit in tea-shops for days on end and talk to strangers aboutbringing change.
When I go to a basti we raise the cry "Halla Bol…"
My mind is clear that they're going to make trouble.
You should join me in reading Marx and Premchand.
The priests say the old order was perfectly alright.
I will not repeat the old half-truths and outright falsehoods.
I have revolutionary dreams and songs about a new world.
India I still haven't told you what you did to Manto when he did notleave for Pakistan in '47.
I'm addressing you.Are you going to let your emotional life be run by television?
I'm obsessed by television.
I watch it every day.
Its eye watches me every evening as I step inside my home.
I watch it with friends in a room in A.K. Gopalan Bhavan.
It's always telling us about the greatness of this country.
Cricketers are great.
Movie stars are great.
Everybody's great but us.
It occurs to me that I am India.
I could not be talking to myself when I say this.

Alisha sings she is "Made in India."
What happened to Mukesh singing "Mera joota hai Japani, Yehpatloon Inglistani, Sir pe laal topi Rusi, phir bhi dil haiHindustani?"
I'd better consider my national resources.
My national resources consist of ten glasses of tea ournukkad-natak the fire in the stomach of my unemployed friendsthe exhaustion on the faces of those productively employedwho after work put in four or more hours in rehearsals andstreet-performances.
I say nothing about the factories closed down, the busted tradeunions, the millions who wake under the dying suns offluorescent pavement lights.
I have abolished bonded labour in Delhi, dowry deaths is the nextto go.
My ambition is to have Bertolt Brecht elected the head of eachgram-panchayat despite the fact that he doesn't belong to any caste.

India how can I write an epic poem in your television soap opera?
I will continue like J.R.D. Tata my plays are as patriotic as his factories more so they're also for the working class.
India I will perform a street-play Rs 50 apiece Rs 400,550 down on your Apna Utsav festivals.
India put behind bars Bal Thackeray.
India save the Naxalites.
India Avtar Singh Pash must not die again.India I am Shah Bano.
India when I was young my parents had organised mehfils in a small garden with communist artists like Bhisham Sahni and Habib Tanvir they had performed with the Indian People's Theatre Association and we started with Machine because in a factory goons fired on striking workers who had wanted a tea-shop and a cycle-stand Comrade Mohan Lal was reminded of the martyr Bhagat Singh and Bhishamji said that a new link had at last been added to the freedom struggle the rhythm of people's heartbeats had found expression once again.
India you don't really want to go to war.
India it's them bad Pakistanis.
Them Pakistanis them Pakistanis and them Chinese. And them Pakistanis. The Pakistan wants to make eunuchs of us all. The Pakistan's terrorist. She wants to take all our cricketers hostage.
Her wants to destroy our temples.
Her needs a Qur'an-quoting Times of India.
Her wants our HMT watch factories in Karachi. Him military government running our corner bania-stores.
That not godly. Chi! Him convert our untouchables. Him need the support of all Indian Muslims.
Ha! Her make us all victims of missile attacks.
Help.India this is quite serious.
India this is the message being repeated by our rulers.
India is this right?
We better get down to the job.
It's true I don't want to train in shakhas of right-wing vigilantes or join mobs intent on demolishing mosques, I'm a Muslim and unwelcome anyway.
India I'm putting my unyielding shoulder to the wheel.

This poem mimics "America" by Allen Gindberg (right). 

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